Both the master energy plan and cost-of-service rate study for Independence Power & Light, being finished now by Burns & McDonnell, are due to be presented to the City Council by the end of the summer, and the city appears poised to revisit the idea of digital “smart meters” for the utilities.

Deputy IPL Director Andy Boatright resigned two weeks ago after multiple high-level IPL positions got eliminated and then reinstated by the council – which at the very least wants to keep electric rates from going up, if not find a way to reduce them.

To add another layer, planning and rates manager Randy Hughes plans to retire about the same time the reports are due, though Assistant City Manager/Utilities Director Mark Randall and City Manager Zach Walker are working on a plan to replace him and hopefully have Hughes help part-time for a short while.

Hughes briefed the council Monday about the current energy market IPL is working in and some things it could anticipate from the master plan.

For one, he believes Burns & McDonnell will recommend retiring the Blue Valley power plant, which now runs solely on natural gas but doesn't run all the time – mostly at peak times. If the city does that, it would need to find a new power source to make up more than 50 megawatts of generating capacity to fulfill its obligation as a transmission owner in the Southwest Power Pool.

While the city only produces 2 percent of the energy it uses – the city has power purchase agreements for the solar farm – Hughes notes that with the Southwest Power Pool it is purchasing 98 percent of its power cheaper than what it costs to produce it.

“You don't replace that capacity without putting out an RFP (request for proposal),” Hughes said.

Furthermore, IPL's net costs with coal and gas-fueled power are positive, he said, while wind and solar were negative this past year. Hughes did add that he recently received an unsolicited bid for solar power that, at $30 per megawatt/hour, would be less than half its current cost for IPL. Purchasing more ownership in the Dogwood natural gas plant in Pleasant Hill could be an option, he said, though a mix of new sources might be better, to avoid being too reliant on a single source. Hughes said Dogwood has been a very efficient plant.

“It's one of the cheaper natural gas plants in the area,” he said. “They're doing a heck of a job; they've maintained it.”

The master plan will consider economics only, he said, and won't show the value of renewable energy beyond that.

“We want to provide those choices to our community, for a variety of reasons,” Mayor Eileen Weir said of having a strong renewable energy portfolio. “But how do we minimize the impact to everybody else. This the question that needs to be addressed.”

WIFI FOR INDEBUS: All IndeBus riders now have access to free Wi-Fi. The city hopes the new transportation initiative, which started Monday, can also help serve as a workforce development tool.

Weir said that an estimated 20 percent of Independence residents lack access to the internet, while discussions with the local school districts showed that more than 90 percent of school families have access to at least one smartphone. For some, that means limited access to resources for job training and announcements.

Wi-Fi users on the buses will be directed to the homepage for IndepWorks.com, a digital portal for job seekers and employers in Independence that can be customized.

“The digital divide is real,” Weir said in a release. “Now transit riders in Independence can access online services through their smartphone or other digital device while traveling to work, school, doctor appointments, or shopping.”

The Wi-Fi for buses cost the city about $10,000 this year, and it will cost about $4,200 in subsequent years for upkeep.

The City Council voted in September 2017 to allocate up to $9,000 from the council goals fund toward Wi-Fi on the buses. The current fiscal year budget (2018-19) also included $70,000 for an extra hour of bus service at the end of the day.